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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The state of things in Queensland

In debate on the Federal Freedom of Information Reform bills in Canberra yesterday Opposition backbencher Peter Lindsay (from Queensland) likened the proposals to changes adopted in Queensland last year. He's right, in a fashion. But he went on to criticise developments there drawing on a media release by the state opposition leader last November headed ‘Accountability a joke under Bligh 'and stating 'Premier Bligh is living in a fool’s paradise if she thinks her government is setting the national agenda for accountability.' Mr Lindsay wasn't exactly using an objective source here. And his remarks don't square with the experience of one of Australia's most experienced journalists in the field.
 The media release he referred to stated:
… Premier Bligh’s claim in state parliament this morning that Queensland’s Right to Information legislation made her government more accountable was laughable. Anyone who has attempted to extract information from this government using (Right to Information) processes is confronted with bureaucratic obfuscation … “Under Bligh’s self-flaunted legislation, departments are required to respond 25 days but are either unable or unwilling to do so.”
 Mr Lindsay relied on this to issue a warning:
These are the kinds of things that, as members of parliament, on both sides, we have to be very careful about. FOI has to mean FOI. After this bill goes through the parliament, if we see what is happening in Queensland continue to happen in the Australian departments, it will be a sad day for Australia. It will be a sad day for the aspirations that the member for Isaacs articulated so well in the parliament this evening.
From this distance there seems a lot positive to be said about the new law in Queensland and the way it is being implemented although there may be questions about aspects of the law and issues that arise in handling particular applications.

Others with experience in use of the act also have a different view. Michael McKinnon FOI Editor of the Seven Network spoke positively last week at the World Press Freedom Day Conference about the changed attitude he has experienced in dealings with Queensland public servants on access requests. His comments were in line with his remarks to a Senate committee on 5 February:
“I would also make the observation that I work in FOI regimes across the country. The new Queensland act has seen a significant transformation in the culture of the Public Service. It is working very well. That is because I think Premier Anna Bligh has made it very clear she is in support of FOI. We are now getting documents a lot more easily than we ever had in our lives. I pinch myself wondering how long it will last, but at this stage we are lodging FOI applications on the internet and getting documents back within 30 or 40 days, with very few exemptions—rarely are exemptions applied. Some of those stories are clearly hurting the Bligh government, given the Premier’s reaction in the media to them, but nevertheless I commend to the committee the leadership shown by the Queensland Premier and suggest that similar leadership needs to be shown by the Prime Minister if this act is going to transform the bureaucracy in terms of encouraging a culture of openness and non-secrecy.”
McKinnon continued:

“I was sceptical about the Queensland act and whether it would change the culture, but it has. I talk to FOI officers who say, ‘No, we’re going to give this to you.’ They are almost overjoyed to say that because they know that they can do it and they are not going to get a call from the director saying, ‘Why did you release that, you idiot?’ Throughout the public service in Queensland there seems to be a real understanding that nobody is going to get bollocksed for releasing documents that are in the public interest to release.”
It won't be a sad day for Australia if we can say this nine months after Federal reforms come into play.


  1. Kevin Stiller of Kev's Office1:23 pm

    I read with interest your favourable comment on Queensland’s new RTI Act 2009. May I offer my comment based on my experience as a Queenslander? In response to Premier Bligh’s “Integrity and Accountability Green Paper, 2009”, I submitted e few submissions by 16th Sept. 2009. In spite of the Government claiming on their website that the submissions posted were done so without alteration, it came to my attention that there were three alterations to my very limited knowledge. Perhaps there are more? My two formal applications to the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, for the release of information under item 2 of the preamble to the Act, failed to receive a response. I then paid for, and applied for, the information under the Act. The decision by the Premier’s Office was that they believed that there was too much work (?) involved in gathering the information applied for. They supplied me with none, not even the total number of submissions made. After making two formal applications for an internal review, I finally received an acknowledgement from the Premier’s Office, indicating that they would advise me by the 24th May, 2010, what their decision is. By current examples, there is no reason to expect the information applied for, either through RTI or the Office of the Information Commissioner. These, along with the Ql’d Criminal Misconduct Commission, (CMC), appear to the person on the street, to serve no more purpose than to give a thin veneer of respectability to our current Government, but no real credibility.Since the inception of the Beattie Regime in Queensland, we appear to have lost all semblance of Separation Of Powers in our State. All indications are that our current Premier is doing everything in her power to tighten the Executive Government’s control of the people. Peter, as a member of Australia’s media, will you be prepared to ask the Ql’d Premier’s Department if they intend to release to the public,all information regarding the Integrity and Accountability submissions and the Government’s response? I await your response with baited breath. Regards from Kevin Stiller, Brisbane, Q4017.

  2. Peter Timmins2:10 pm

    Kev, I'm surprised at the problems you have encountered on this and that a formal RTI application has been required, Submissions should have been invited on the basis generally that they would be available for publication or inspection. I don't know if that occurred. Any content included in a submission of a clearly personal nature, or unsubstantiated allegations or aspersions on the character of others shouldn't be broadcast around in this way, but that's about it. Here is what the Federal government's GOV 2.0 Task Force recommended on the subject and the Government's recent response:

    3.4 Subject to security and privacy requirements, all public inquiries funded by the Australian Government should ensure that all submissions are posted online in a form that makes them searchable, easy to comment on and reuse. The Government 2.0 lead agency should encourage those conducting inquiries to use interactive media such as blogs to publicly discuss emerging lines of thought and issues of relevance.

    AGREED IN PRINCIPLE. The Australian Government agrees that, in general, an inquiry process would benefit from open and transparent submissions to public inquiries.

    A general proscription may not be appropriate for some forms of public inquiry, such as royal commissions, certain parliamentary inquiries, or certain own motion investigation inquiries by statutory officers like the Auditor-General or Commonwealth Ombudsman.

    Accordingly, Finance, in conjunction with the Steering Group, will work to develop a policy to encourage best practice in this area that simultaneously protects information that ought not to be disclosed.